How Hong Kong became the least politician its champions of freedom

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    Hong Kong – Some day, Kathy Yau wanders in the dark streets looking for poison. On other days, she helps food banks deliver food to older people. Often his phone rings with calls from constituents: neighboring police ask about their rights during stop-and-frisk, or how best to navigate the city’s welfare bureaucracy.

    Such is life for a district councilor in Hong Kong.

    “I do things that no one has directed you to do, but if I don’t then no one else does,” she said.

    Ms Yau, a 37-year-old former police officer, is among hundreds of pro-democracy candidates who were elected to local government offices in Hong Kong in November 2019, following a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that sparked street protests for months Was made after. .

    As the political climate in Hong Kong has changed rapidly, the councilors’ advocacy for the fragile democratic institutions of the Chinese region has made them the latest targets of Communist Party officials in Beijing. In recent months, nearly 50 of the city’s 392 opposition councilors have been arrested on charges related to 2019 protests, campaign finance and violations of a controversial anti-treason law.

    Since the passage of the National Security Act in June – a law granting Beijing broad powers to curb political crimes in Beijing – pro-democracy activists were surveyed and arrested. In November, Beijing forced the removal of four pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s main legislative body, a purse that prompted the rest of the opposition to resign en masse.

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    Credit …Lam Yik Fei for the New York Times

    The work of the District Councilor, the lowest part of public office in Hong Kong, was never a particularly political position. Councilors are usually concerned with mundane matters such as pest control and locations of new bus stops.

    Now, they are the last line of defense to keep the city’s pro-democracy opposition alive. And Beijing does not plan to make it easy.

    “When the opposition walked out of the legislature, the district councils became one of the last remaining institutions that could voice public interest,” said Edmund Cheng, associate professor of public policy at the City University of Hong Kong. “What happens to them will test Hong Kong’s resilience as a pluralistic society and how it will be regulated.”

    Since assuming his office a year ago, many district councilors have sought to redefine the office with mixed results. He has boycotted meetings with senior officials accusing the city’s police chief of lying. Extracted information Regarding surveillance infrastructure in their neighborhood. In exchange, government representatives staged a walkout when councilors tried to discuss political issues in meetings.

    Next month, for the first time all 452 district councilors will have to take an oath of allegiance, a new requirement under the National Security Act and the latest examination for the remaining elected opposition leaders.

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    Credit …Lam Yik Fei for the New York Times

    Some pro-democracy district councilors have increased impatience with the pro-democracy block strategy. “If they refuse to communicate with the government, are they still performing their duties?” Asked pro-Beijing councilor Frankie Ngan. “I have my doubts.”

    The campaign by pro-democracy councilors to take action on the government underscores that in Hong Kong today everything – from maintaining roads to collecting garbage – is political.

    Ms. Yau, District Councilor, walks out of a cluttered office in the town of Causeway Bay, a stone’s throw from Victoria Park. In the early days of the 2019 protests, he patrolled the neighborhood as a police officer. That June, Ms. Yao saw the past as a sea of ​​protesters invoking democracy and police accountability, shouting: “Corrupt police! Corrupt police! “

    At the time, Ms. Yao thought to herself: “This is not who I am. And if I didn’t have to work, I think I’d march with you. As the police clamped down on the protesters that summer, He resigned feeling angry.

    Tear gas and barricades have not been seen on the streets of Causeway Bay in more than a year, but there are still traces of protests in the area. Holes were removed in the pavement as protesters filled the bricks with concrete to throw at the police, creating a patchwork of red and gray paint. Trash bins remain on the streets after they were removed by authorities after they were used to create obstacles by protesters. Ms. Yao advocated returning the trash cans and the government replaced them with fewer plastic bags.

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    Credit …Lam Yik Fei for the New York Times

    Leung Ming-yu, a Causeway Bay resident who sells backpacks in the neighborhood street market, said he expects district councilors to prioritize the everyday needs of residents over politics. But he also said he was disappointed to see some establishment-backed officials “acting as yes-men” and approving Expensive government projects This did not benefit the community.

    “Of course, it’s a good thing to have a very capable councilor who can solve all our problems,” Mr. Leung said. “But we want a real councilor, so we can feel that we have a high level of participation.”

    Ms Yau said that she tried to strive for democracy and ensure that she could work for her constituents another day. As a result, she has moved away from more sensitive political issues. When a group of fugitive Hong Kong activists were captured on the sea last year by mainland officials – a case that touches a raw nerve in the city – he left work for other lawmakers, who have institutional and resources Rights of detention to advocate for activists for.

    Despite the split between the pro-democracy and pro-power camps, Ms. Yao said she plans to focus on the small common ground that the groups still share.

    “Despite our skirmishes with officials at council meetings, we still need to work with government departments on everyday issues,” she said. “I just hope to work on things that the officials think makes sense and it really benefits the community.”

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